By Eric Peterson | Aug 15, 2022
Asphalt binding modifiers
Logsden terms most prior attempts to recycle single-use plastics as "small-batch solutions -- people making shoes and swimsuits out of ocean plastic that were more awareness-based than true solution to the volume of the waste problem."
With Ecologic Materials Corporation, she sees room to scale a process that transforms waste plastic into a binding agent modifier for asphalt. The process was developed, patented, and tested by a multinational chemical company, and test roads have been in operation in Michigan, Texas, Alabama, and Indonesia for several years.
"We have a proprietary process that transforms the plastic into a dry flake," says Logsden. "That flake combines with a compatibilizer, similarly in a dry flake, that changes the plastic at a molecular level so that it can perform in the asphalt without being at risk for sloughing off microplastics. It also increases the heat tolerance of the road, and the elasticity. We're seeing about a 5 percent reduction in maintenance over the life of a road with an extension of the road life and a reduction in cracking and running due to the use."
Logsden teamed with Christopher Wacinski to start the company in 2020. "My background is a mix of entrepreneurship and politics. And Chris is an engineer who holds a number of patents, everything from pharmaceuticals to high-tech manufacturing, Silicon Valley type of stuff."
The first manufacturing facility is a 10,000-square-foot space in Pueblo that Logsden expects to staff up to 15 employees by the end of 2022. "That is where we recycle and prepare the plastic and compatibilizer that we ship out to our plants -- asphalt producers."
Delivered via super sack or dump truck, the output is cost-competitive with other asphalt binders, says Logsden. "We can recycle between one and 10 tons of plastic per lane-mile of road. It's hard to fathom when you see how much plastic is in a one-ton cube."
The market is large, steady, and global. "We are working with binder companies as well as the hot-mix asphalt plants," says Logsden. "We follow it all the way through to installation, and we do core sampling on a regular basis."
The supply chain is likewise vast. Ecologic Materials has no problem sourcing plastic. "We focus primarily on feedstock that can't be recycled through any other process," says Logsden. "Right now, the thin-film, low-density polyethylene plastic that's used to shrink-wrap pallets is in large supply and often doesn't have a home outside of the landfill."
Ecologic Materials sources waste shrink-wrap from Pueblo- based partner TR Toppers -- Logsden terms it as "a gorgeous symbiotic relationship" -- and via a pilot program with Amazon facilities in Colorado Springs, as well as grocery bags from Basha's stores in Tucson, Arizona, and other single-use films.
"Because this plastic is literally everywhere, we have our pick of really clean plastic coming into our plant," says Logsden. "When plastic comes in, there's really no sorting waste out of our process."
Initial projects include a parking lot with heavy truck traffic in Arizona that the company installed for a private-sector partner, with an assist from a mobile machine that will be sent to new markets and pilot projects. Ecologic Materials is also working on a road in Tucson as well as roads in Denver and Pueblo. At 1.75 miles, the latter stretch of Siloam Road will be the longest stretch of roadway with recycled plastic materials in the U.S. when complete.
Those projects are just the beginning. "We are in the middle of building a scaling plan," says Logsden. "We're looking at a 50-state, five-year expansion."
The vision includes 28 plants in a hub-and-spoke model in "small to mid-market cities with a heavy industrial sector" around the U.S., with Pueblo as the hub for training and process refinement. Each plant will be capable of processing 500 tons of feedstock daily.
"We've had zero problem getting that amount of feedstock," notes Logsden. "We're working on national partnerships with some of the major manufacturing and warehouse companies. . . . We are looking at everything from the U.S. Postal Service to big-box stores to bottling facilities, and we've been looking to the companies that have been struggling to find a place for their plastic since China stopped purchasing it."
She adds, "For all of us, there's a climate concern. We all have small children who are also very concerned about climates. We all understand and are advocates of economic development in different ways. We've all been pretty involved in that, and know that infrastructure and road quality is an inhibitor of economic growth. To have healthy communities and healthy movement of goods, we need good roads."
"When we think about real solutions to that very worrisome problem of the plastic we see in our waterways and around in our ditches and trees and everywhere else, if we can catch it before it ever ends up in a landfill or blowing down a road, we'll be really proud of that effort."
Challenges: Launching a startup in "a heavily regulated and risk-averse industry like asphalt," says Logsden. "The state DOTs [departments of transportation] have a very lengthy process for getting new paving materials approved, but each county and city has their own regulatory schemes where they can use a material, submit data, and continue to move forward with materials in response to that data. So, we're doing both."
Opportunities: Recycling plastics into a product for a $40 billion annual industry in the U.S. Logsden says the international market is even larger. "We're already speaking with some folks in northern Europe and other places where these technologies are something that the governments are actively recruiting for their public road projects."
There's also potential to use a wider range of inputs, she adds. "The product is pretty tolerant of contamination, so we could use recovered ocean plastic, for example, or we could use stuff coming out of a municipal recycling facility. It's a more labor-intensive process because of the sourcing, but we are looking at those types of projects."
"Being able to connect mission to manufacturing is a unique opportunity," she adds.
Needs: "We have a need to recruit folks who understand that vision in a leadership capacity and also have manufacturing skills and are excited to work in a social-impact type of environment," says Logsden. "We also have a need to raise capital and find the right strategic partners to do that."
The company has raised $3.1 million as of August 2022, but scaling will require a sizable investment. Logsden says manufacturing usually gets ignored by the software-focused VC community, but the tide might be changing. "The funds that want to know about us are much more interested in software subscription models, even though we're solving the kind of problems that they're excited to solve."
Logsden anticipates opening a second manufacturing facility in Arizona by early 2023. "We're waiting to hear on grant funding that we've applied for. A number of cities have funding for sustainability initiatives and waste-stream work."
Ecologic Materials also has an immediate need for about 10 employees at the production facility in Pueblo. If the company scales to the planned 28 facilities, the number of employees nationwide could eclipse 500 at full capacity.